It’s easy to visit Hawaii, but finding the “authentic Hawaii” requires you to become a traveler, not a tourist. Forgo the commercial, scripted vacation to seek opportunities to let the people of Hawaii share their islands with you.
In Hawaii, to find the authentic culture, you need to experience the natural world. Hawaiian chants tell us that Hawaiians are descended from gods and are a part of the land and ocean. They were one with the natural world and their laws, land divisions and stewardship ensured natural resources would be conserved and shared. Each family had a personal god they believed was a deified ancestor. In animal, bird or fish form, these personal gods provided protection, and they, in turn, must be protected.
Connect with the land, sky and ocean to understand the Hawaiian relationship to nature, and you will understand the food, place names, songs, legends and hulas. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Volunteer and Meet the Locals
Volunteering at the beginning of your vacation is a sure way to meet people, work for a cause you believe in and gain insight about how to spend the rest of your stay. You won’t be alone; “voluntourism” in Hawaii is a growing trend.
Malama ka ‘aina means caring for the land. Choose an environmental volunteer opportunity that speaks to your likes and skills; working on hiking trails or native habitat restoration, working with wild dolphins, or restoring an ancient fishpond or taro patch are but a few ways to connect with Hawaiian culture. On Oahu, Papahana Kuaola is an organization dedicated to cultural and environmental education; to learn more, visit papahanakuaola.com. Preserve Hawaii is an excellent resource to learn about organizations needing volunteers all over Hawaii; go to preservehawaii.org/volunteer.
You can also meet locals and learn about Hawaii by volunteering to decorate a float for one of Oahu’s Aloha Festivals. The festivals are free events in September that culminate with a floral float parade, music and graceful ladies on horseback (pa’u riders) draped with fabric and leis to represent the flora of each island. alohafestivals.com
Four of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens are in Hawaii; one on Maui and three on Kauai, including the exceptional Allerton Garden, part of Queen Emma’s crown lands. Garden lovers can volunteer to help preserve the flora that grows only in the tropics, home to 90 percent of the world’s plants and animals, but with the highest extinction rate in the world. firstname.lastname@example.org
Enjoy the Music and Theater
In August, on Oahu, music lovers come to the annual Gabby Pahinui Waimãnalo Kanikapila at Waimãnalo Beach Park to celebrate the late Gabby Pahinui, beloved kiho’alu or slack key guitar, virtuoso. While there, you’ll enjoy food, crafts, plenty of music and aloha from the Pahinui family. For more information, go to gabbypahinui.com.
Kani Ka Pila Grille at the Outrigger Reef On The Beach is a local favorite for down-home Hawaiian music. Gabby’s son Cyril Pahinui plays here. It’s a beautiful way to spend a balmy Waikiki evening with pupu and drinks. To learn more visit outrigger.com.
The Maui Theatre’s spectacular production of ‘Ulalena takes you through the creation of the islands, discovery, the monarchy and finally back to the current reign of Madame Pele, goddess of volcanoes. mauitheatre.com.
For a full list of festivals and events that will connect you with authentic Hawaii, visit gohawaii.com.
Visit a Museum
Hawaii’s museums are worth a visit. The state is home to dozens of museums, both major and small, which present Hawaiian history and culture as no other venues can.
At the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, docent tours share what life was like for the common man and chiefs. Learn about celestial navigation at The Planetarium’s show “Wayfinders: Waves,Wind and Stars,” where you virtually jump on board the Hokule’a and sail from Tahiti to Hawaii. Kids love the “live” volcano in the museum’s Science Adventure Center. bishopmuseum.org
At the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, you’ll journey from the origins of the cosmos to the relationship of Hawaiians to the planets, stars and ocean and the navigational skills of the Hawaiian mariners. Also at the museum, the Native Garden’s “canoe plants” represent those brought by the first Polynesian inhabitants when they came ashore in Hawaii. Concerts, the Mauna Kea observatory program and special events, such as hula workshops, round out the cultural offerings at ‘Imiloa. imiloahawaii.org
Queen Emma Summer Palace on Oahu is a 19th century royal retreat turned museum, preserving an important aspect of Hawaiian heritage. Every Wednesday at the museum you can witness or learn the intricate craft of Hawaiian quilting. Also visit Hulihe‘e Palace in Kona and Anna Ranch in Waimea on the Big Island, two more museums where the islands’ rich heritage comes alive. To learn about these and other small museums, go to hawaiimuseums.org.
Embrace Mother Ocean
To appreciate these islands, which are actually the tops of volcanoes rising from the ocean floor, you need to get out on the ocean with a guide in a traditional outrigger canoe. Some of the best are: Island Sails on Kauai (islandsailskauai.com); Hawaiian Ocean Adventures on Oahu (hawaiianoceanadventures.com); Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Adventures (mauisailingcanoe.com) or Teralani (teralani.net), both on Maui; Kona Boys (konaboys.com) or the Kinikini Hawaiian Sailing Canoe at the Sheraton Kona Resort (sheratonkona.com/culture/kinikini), both on the Big Island.
In October, Moloka‘i Hoe, the men’s world championship outrigger canoe race, begins on Oahu and crosses the treacherous Ka‘iwi Channel to finish at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort at Waikiki. This exciting spectacle draws more than 1000 competitive paddlers from around the world and crowds of spectators. molokaihoe.com
As the Hawaiians say: “E hele aku ilaila” (meaning “go there”) and find your own authentic Hawaii.
Check out your-rv-lifestyle.com/best-things-to-do-in-hawaii for a comprehensive list of adventures in Hawaii, complete with the best tips and tricks.